Iraqis flee home as Mosul battle gathers steam

Iraqi forces fire a M109 self-propelled howitzer towards the village of Al-Muftuya from a position in Kani al-Harami, some 35km of Mosul, on Oct 19, 2016, during an operation against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake the main hub city. — AFP
Iraqi soldiers look on as smoke rises from the Qayyarah area, some 60km south of Mosul, on Oct 19, 2016, as Iraqi forces take part in an operation against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake the main hub city. — AFP
Iraqi villagers gather on a road as smoke rises from the Qayyarah area, some 60km south of Mosul, on Oct 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake the main hub city. — AFP
A man takes a selfie in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area, some 60km south of Mosul, on Oct 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake the main hub city. — AFP

TINA, Iraq: Families who fled their village in the early days of the battle to retake Mosul from jihadists sit on the dusty ground amid discarded plastic bottles and other trash.

This group is one of the first of what the United Nations said could be up to a million people who flee their homes during the operation to recapture Iraq's second city, which has been held by the Islamic State group since 2014.

The dozens of men, women and children escaped from the village of Mdaraj south of Mosul, some on foot and others with vehicles, and now wait as police search their belongings.

"We snuck out," said a man who gave his name as Abu Hussein, later explaining that IS was not present in the immediate area and that the smoke of burning oil wells nearby provided cover to escape.

People from another village had already fled to Mdaraj, and then they all left it as well, he said.

"We raised white flags and went toward them," Abu Hussein said, describing how they approached Iraqi security forces.

Circumstances in Mdaraj had been dire prior to the residents' departure.

"For us, there was no food for three days," said Rabah Hassan Yusef, who escaped the village with his wife and three children.

Residents were in touch with security forces by phone before departing, and were given water and food when they met them, he said.

Yusef is happy to be out of IS control even though he had to leave his home, saying: "There, we were sleeping in our house, but we were not content."

Nearby, a motley collection of cars, pickup trucks and tractors are piled high with blankets, carpets, pots and other items brought out by the fleeing residents.

Some also brought livestock with them, including sheep, chickens, pigeons and ducks.

Displacement begins

One smiling boy walked by carrying two turkeys in his arms, while several bleating lambs shared the back of a truck with a pile of other items.

Bringing the livestock into the camp for which the displaced Iraqis are bound may pose a problem, and Abu Hussein said he plans to rent a house instead.

In the background, one of the displaced Iraqis accused a woman of trying to take advantage of her circumstances to buy a chicken for a cheap price.

The displacement started the day after the Mosul operation was announced, said Staff Brigadier General Qusay Kadhim Hamid, a commander in the interior ministry's elite rapid response forces.

"It began (Tuesday), a few families – two or three families," Hamid said.

The next day, "we noticed unusual displacement of families, beginning from early in the morning" he said, adding that his forces had received "40 to 50 families, with their vehicles, with their livestock", he said.

Security forces check the IDs of displaced people when they reach their lines, and conduct an initial search to make sure they are not carrying bombs and are not IS members trying to hide, he said.

Hamid said he expects the number of displaced Iraqis to increase as security forces push closer to more populated areas near Mosul.

Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said Monday that the Iraqi military had indicated that major displacement could start in less than a week.

After the police finished searching the belongings, the recently-displaced Iraqis set out for the camp in their vehicles and others driven by security forces.

They have escaped IS and avoided being caught in a battle between the jihadists and security forces.

But "life is still not stable", Abu Hussein said. — AFP